WHO: 'NCDs Now the Leading Cause of Deaths Globally'

Why Cancer, Heart Disease, and Diabetes are Hobbling the Developing World

Ala Alwan

  • Country: Iraq
  • Title: Assistant Director-General for Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health
  • Education: University of Alexandria

Over the past year, as the assistant director general for non-communicable diseases and mental health at the World Health Organization, Ala Alwan has been coordinating the work of WHO, the UN, NGOs, and the private sector, all of which are assembling at a high-level meeting in New York on Tuesday, formalizing a political declaration that charts a way forward to combat preventable diseases. (Click here to read an investigation into how that declaration came about.) Alwan spoke with Foreign Affairs' Andrew Bast about the urgency of the issue and how NCDs are presenting a new challenge to the developing world.

Non-communicable diseases are a signature agenda item of this year's United Nations General Assembly. Why now?

Because NCDs are now the leading causes of death globally. They are responsible for 63 percent of all deaths around the world. But we now have clear evidence NCDs are not only an enormous health problem, but they are also a development issue with serious socioeconomic consequences. They are a major burden on lower- and middle-income countries. And the problem is increasing significantly.

What will come of the meeting?

On Monday and Tuesday we are expecting 34 heads of state and more than 50 ministers, so one accomplishment will be raising awareness not only among health policymakers, but among members at the highest levels of government that NCDs are linked with social and economic development. The second achievement will be the endorsement of a political declaration, which includes a set of recommendations that place NCDs firmly on the global agenda.

Traditionally NCDs have been a problem for the developed world. Why are they now a development problem?

The fact that a huge number of people are dying too young has a negative impact on productivity, which in turn affects household income. There is also clear evidence both that NCDs contribute to poverty, and that poverty can contribute to NCDs. In India, for instance, the World Bank conducted a study that showed that of families in which one member

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